health · Sat with Nat

Work, wellness and weighty matters


I got a message from Sam last night about the traction Friday’s posts about workplace wellness programs was getting and she asked me to weigh in (oh pun intended friends, pun intended). I’ve had the privilege to work in many different kinds of workplaces and wellness programs can look very different.

Life in the military

It was simple, to keep my job I had to meet a set physical fitness criteria as well as a level of medical and dental fitness to keep my flying status. All medical and dental care were fully paid for and I had access to a gym 24/7 and free fitness training. I had free access to social workers, addiction counselors, you name it in the field of wellness and fitness and I could access it at no cost to myself. I got work time to go to appointments. Luxurious, yes, paternalistic, definitely. My agency in it, approaching nil. My job was 3/4 sedentary sitting in a plane or sitting at a desk. The remaining time I was expected to lug and slug gear or be working out.

Life in the not for profit sector

There wasn’t a wellness program at either not for profit I worked at in my ten years in this sector. I once attended a workplace seminar, given by a medical doctor, who claimed that a work life balance was sleeping 8 hrs a day, working 8 hrs a day and keeping 8 hrs for your family each day. Did you notice he didn’t mention weekends? I’m pretty sure someone did his laundry, cooking and cleaning. I did have extended healthcare benefits and some dental coverage. Living in Canada means I always have  access to free basic care but some things aren’t covered and the extra health coverage comes in handy for prescriptions and eye wear.

Wellness was reduced to self-care and focusing on personal boundaries, which are routinely challenged by the emotional demands of not fot profit work and the blurring of the personal and professional for the sake of “the cause”. Low wages meant that I was unable to participate in many of the activities I wanted to for sheer lack of funds and a predictable schedule. When people fell ill it was chalked up to poor self care, a subtle victim blaming that erases the predictable cycles of burnout/vicarious trauma that accompanies work laden with emotion. My work was 3/4 desk work but events meant lugging gear and long days.

Life in a for profit corporation

I now have access to an onsite gym, a wellness spending account, a workstation ergonomic assessment and a plethora of resources, including onsite healthcare staff. At first I was really weirded out by the idea that my employer had so many components to their employee wellness programs. There are fitness challenges with stair climbing trivia, draws for prizes based on participation, nutritional analysis of all the cafeteria food. It’s all there and they are looking to add more. My job is the most sedentary of all the kinds of work I’ve ever had. I do not need to lift, walk or even climb stairs so I’ve really had to focus on breaks and walking to work to stay modestly active and not loose ground.

Between you, me and the apple tree

I know workplace wellness programs have a goal of reducing claims to benefits and the number of sick days employees take to benefit the employer. When programs are voluntary and accessible I think they can help meet a person’s health/fitness/wellness objectives. Between you, me and the apple tree I think many of these programs aren’t used by employees because, like many folks here have written, engaging in fitness and wellness is hard and the rewards are not always immediate. I’m skeptical that the employer’s needs and the employee’s needs are always in sync and I think we are quick to blame an individual for having shortcomings rather than critique, say, workflow design that leads to extreme sedentary work.

So if you are lucky enough to have paid work AND some kind of wellness program you are probably healthier simply because of your socioeconomic status more that participating in a specific program. I’ m still thinking on this and would love to hear your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “Work, wellness and weighty matters

  1. I am in my first job and first time living in the US (I’m Canadian) as an assistant professor. We have a workplace wellness program – my employer covers stupidly expensive premiums for a healthcare plan as long as we meet certain targets or else we have to pay part. I think the plan, and this idea, are terrible and if I were older and/or had a chronic health care issue I would be a lot poorer than I am. I use the gym where I work because of convenience

  2. As I commented on the other post, I’m very skeptical of the wellness program in place where I work (a private college). However, that skepticism is targeted at the part that forces rewards us for taking a health assessment through our insurance company’s wellness site. Our health numbers (blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, etc.) are uploaded and our risks judged accordingly, even if the insurance company’s website interprets the numbers incorrectly, which it often does.

    But on the plus side, the school has a pretty amazing list of exercise classes we can take for low cost (plus a rebate through the insurance co.), free access to gym facilities and a swimming pool, and a gorgeous campus to walk around. Plus voluntary challenges and such (sadly, only focused on weight loss, but still). If the place would keep its nose out of my business, I wouldn’t have a bad thing to say about it.

  3. I think your comment about even having a job with any kind of “wellness program” puts you in a socio-economic category that increases your overall health is spot-on. Thanks.

  4. ” Low wages meant that I was unable to participate in many of the activities I wanted to for sheer lack of funds and a predictable schedule. When people fell ill it was chalked up to poor self care, a subtle victim blaming that erases the predictable cycles of burnout/vicarious trauma that accompanies work laden with emotion.”

    I work in the non-profit field in the US, and this is so freaking spot-on!
    Being paid more would definitely reduce a number of barriers for me when it comes to eating healthy and fitness. If I didn’t already have a home gym, there is definitely nothing left after paying for necessities in my income to pay for a gym membership or equipment. Heck, next time I have to buy new running shoes I’m not sure I’ll even be able to come up with that cost on my current income.

    I’ve never really thought about the victim blaming nature of how we talk about self-care either but that is very spot on.

  5. I’ve worked in both public and private sector organizations in Canada for the last..30 years. 9 different employers.

    When one is young and healthy, I didn’t even pay attention to my employer health benefits, except for dental care. I never paid attention to any fitness, wellness programs. But there was never a financial incentive to reduce “costs” for the employer on health care cost preminiums…and not sure, if that’s the CAnadian public health care system.

    What I would have wanted in the last 20 years from the employer were: discount on monthly transit passes and secured bike storage at workplace site. Encouraging employees to use active transportation options by removing barriers!

    Now don’t get annoyed at my suggestion: but this alone would get a small, but now growing % of employees, particularily living in big cities with transit systems, more active by building in non-car transportation commutes into their personal schedule.

    For 3 employers, I did have to pay for secured bike storage. It actually pisses me off when there is no secured storage for bikes. Storage of ie. 5-8 bikes is equivalent to only 1 car-parking stall. I’ve had to store my bike in a janitorial closet. Another time, I had not chose but to store my bike..unlocked in the parking garage shared with judges.

    I agree the cost of even discounted fitness memberships is not much help if the employee is already working in a lower paid job since I’ve been there.

    As I said in another post thread, I have no problems with employers who approach health and wellness program from the standpoint of: reducing absenteeism, more energetic and de-stressed employees,..etc. This alone is quite important if you have 10 employees who become more energetic, less stressed and happier out of 40 employees.

    1. my new place has secure bike storage at no cost, I never thought of how that supports cycling to work, thank you for bringing that up!

  6. I love the idea behind wellness programs, especially when they are balanced and support mental, physical and emotional needs. I find most are more about hype and cost cutting though. At my own place of employment I genuinely do not have time to do the little fitness competitions or go to the events we have. I would much rather see discounted gym memberships or yoga classes or mediation classes, flexible scheduling, access to healthier food in our cafeterias (not just processed options!) and a culture focused on improvement and collaboration–instead of short term activities… maybe I am being too critical but I feel like work place wellness means little without some mindfulness considered and strategic implementation. I feel pandered too–and I exercise daily and meditate daily… so if I find the program at my work place annoying, imagine how those struggling with lifestyle changes feel!

  7. Yes, I agree with many of your statements especially about the wellness program opportunities in relation to the socio-economic bracket. Incentivizing “well-living” is such a tricky thing. I understand why employers have an incentive to motivate people to it or that it’s a “perk” or recruiting tool but it’s all very layered and complicated. For fitness I personally am more motivated by making it easier to get to the gym of studio where I am already a member (discount or flexible hours) than trying to incorporate a new program into my day.

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